Cabinet Discusses Military and Vallangdigham Problems

June 26, 1863

Navy Secretary Gideon Welles writes in his diary: “Rumors are rife concerning the army. If Hooker has generalship in him, this is his opportunity. He can scarcely fail of a triumph. The President in a single remark to-day betrayed doubts of Hooker, to whom he is quite partial. “We cannot help beating them, if we have the man. How much depends in military matters on one master mind! Hooker may commit the same fault as McClellan and lose his chance. We shall soon see, but it appears to me he can’t help but win.”

A pretty full discussion of Vallandigham’s case and of the committee from Ohio which is here, ostensibly in his behalf, but really to make factious party strength. Blair is for letting them return, — turning him loose,—says he will damage his own friends. The President would have no objections but for the effect it might have in relaxing army discipline, and disgusting the patriotic sentiment and feeling of the country, which holds V. in abhorrence.

President Lincoln reviews a number of pardon cases with Adjutant General Joseph Holt:   Among the notes he writes on the case of Private Andrew Brower, charged with mutiny: “Sentence commuted to imprisonment at hard labor during the remainder of the war, in some military prison.”  In the case of Private John H. Clark, charged with desertion, he writes: “Sentence commuted to loss of six months pay in accordance with the recommendation of Maj. Genl. Rosecrans.”

Colonel John D. Van Buren, son of former President Martin Van Buren,  recalled meeting with President Lincoln at the Soldiers Home that night: “It was a bright night and about nine o’clock when were turned from the highway into the winding roads of the Soldiers’ Home. We saw gleaming amid the shrubbery in all directions the bayonets of the soldiers who guarded the President’s residence. There were at that time many fears expressed that a cavalry raid would be made for the purpose of capturing the President.

We drew up in front of a cottage before which a sentry was walking to and fro. To him the Major gave some password, and we alighted with renewed trepidation, for the aspect of the house indicated retirement for the night. The Major rang the bell, and after a while the door was opened by a man-servant, whom the Major peremptorily directed to inform the President that some gentlemen, specially empowered by Governor Seymour of New York, desired to see him. The servant hesitated, but the Major’s manner was so urgent that we were admitted to a dimly lighted hall, and ushered thence into a dark parlor, where the servant lighted a chandelier and departed with our cards.

During our drive Colonel Van Buren and I had recognized the fact that the indomitable Major had primed himself thoroughly with his favorite whisky, as evidenced by his constant stroking of his heavy beard, a trick that denoted alcoholic repletion.

After the servant returned and announced that the President would receive us, we sat for some time in painful silence. At length we heard slow, shuffling steps come down the carpeted stairs, and the President entered the room as we respectfully rose from our seats. That pathetic figure has ever remained indelible in my memory. His tall form was bowed, his hair disheveled; he wore no necktie or collar, and his large feet were partly incased in very loose, heelless slippers. It was very evident that he had got up from his bed or had been very nearly ready to get into it when we were announced, and had hastily put on some clothing and those slippers that made the flip-flop sounds on the stairs.

It was the face that, in every line, told the story of anxiety and weariness.  The drooping eyelids, looking almost swollen; the dark bags beneath the eyes; the deep marks about the large and expressive mouth; the flaccid muscles of the jaws, were all so majestically pitiful that I could almost have fallen on my knees and begged pardon for my part in the cruel presumption and impudence that had thus invaded his repose.  As we were severally introduced, the President shook hands with us, and then took his seat on a haircloth-covered sofa beside the Major, while we others sat on chairs in front of him.  Colonel Van Buren, in fitting words, conveyed the message from Governor Seymour…. check.

The merely formal talk being over, something was said about the critical condition of military matters, and the President observed that he had no fears about the safety of Washington, and was certain that the attempted invasion of the Northern States would be arrested.  He said the latest intelligence from the Army of the Potomac was favorable, but gave no details, and it was not until the next day that we learned that General Meade had succeeded General Hooker.

A little pause in the conversation ensued.  The gaunt figure of the President had gradually slid lower on the slippery sofa, and this long legs were stretched out in front,t he loose slippers half-fallen from his feet, while the drowsy eyelids had almost closed over his eyes, and his jaded features had taken on the suggestion of relaxation in sleep.

Deeply moved by the President’s evident fatigue, and by his cordial treatment of us in spite of our presumptuous call, Colonel Van Buren and I were about rising to make our adieux when, to our dismay, the Major slapped the President on his knee and said:

‘Mr. President, tell us one of your good stories.’

If the floor had opened and dropped me out of sight, I should have been happy.

The President drew himself up, and turning his back as far as possible upon the Major, with great dignity addressed the rest of us, saying: ‘I believe I have the popular reputation of being a story-teller, but I do not deserve the name in its general sense; for it is not the story itself, but its purpose, or effect, that interests me.  I often avoid a long and useless discussion by others or a laborious explanation of my own part by a short story that illustrates my point of view.  So, too, the sharpness of refusal or the edge of a rebuke may be blunted by an appropriate story, so as to save wounded feeling, and yet serve the purpose.  No, I am not simply a story-teller, but the story-telling as an emollient saves me much friction and distress.’  These are almost his exact words, of which I made a record that very night.”

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Published in: on June 26, 2013 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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